Orchards were once widespread across Britain – let alone the thousands of individual trees found outside every farmhouse and suburban garden. Yet according to Common Ground, from 1970 to 1997 there was a 64% decline in the area of orchards. Thanks to the initial work of Common Ground there has been revival in orchards, particularly community orchards (we recommend Community Orchards Handbook, Common Ground/Green Books, 2011). Now there is also an Orchard Network where you can find your nearest orchard on an online map, and even government guidelines to help communities.
When Sylva Foundation received the generous gift of land on the outskirts of the village of Long Wittenham in south Oxfordshire, the idea of creating a community orchard soon came forward. Thanks to funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery and the Naturesave Trust we were able to purchase the trees, protection, paths and cover other expenditure. Last weekend, with the help of local people, we planted 50 apple varieties, plus a small number of other fruit trees (cherry, plum, quince, medlar, damson and pear) and nut trees (cobnut, filbert and walnut). In total 98 there trees in the orchard.
Sylva Foundation retains ownership of the land but we decided to issue 50 ‘cropshares’ to local people who in return for their ‘investment’ each receive a 50th share in the orchard’s produce. Their funding will help the charity manage the orchard on an ongoing basis. If you live locally, we do have some shares remaining: visit www.sylva.org.uk/orchard to find out more.
Before planting we dipped all the trees in a mycorrhizal fungal gel. Mycorrhiza is a symbiotic relationship between fungi and the roots of the tree; the fungi help the tree access nutrients far beyond their own roots. By dipping the roots in the gel, evidence suggests that the trees will establish sooner and grow better, ultimately helping the tree fruit more too.
The next big step with our orchard is introducing beehives. Thanks to the support of the Rowse Family Trust we will be setting up three beehives in the first instance, supported by a community of local beekeepers. Traditional orchards are incredibly important for bees, and of course bees are critical for humans in helping pollinate plants and produce food for us to eat.
We are excited by the new orchard, and the journey we have embarked on with the local community. In time, we hope the orchard will not only be a beautiful part of the local landscape, and be bountiful, but also contribute to the conservation of wildlife (traditional orchards are recognised in the UK Biodiversity Habitat Action Plan).